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Heavy snow forces Utah to take action to protect big-game animals

Knowing too well the status of water levels in Lake Mead and other places along the lower Colorado River system, I can’t help but cheer whenever snow falls in the mountains of eastern Utah, southwestern Wyoming and western Colorado. More snow there eventually means more water in Southern Nevada. 

The problem with snow is, well, it’s snow. It has benefits but also drawbacks.

Such has been the case in Utah, where heavy snows buried much of the forage that big-game animals such as mule deer and elk need to survive the winter. So deep is the snow in some places that the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources initiated emergency feeding activity in mid-January. Now the division is taking additional steps to protect those antler-growing species, steps that could have an impact on Nevada.

On Feb. 2, Greg Sheehan, director of the Utah wildlife agency, signed an emergency order making it illegal to gather shed antlers in the state until April 1. The order came two days after he signed a similar one that applied to 11 of the state’s 29 counties. Sheehan made the change after people expressed concern that the closure would concentrate shed gathering activity in the Utah’s southern counties and thus have a negative impact on wintering animals.

“Although winter conditions are generally less severe in the southern portions of the state,” Sheehan said, “snowpack is still above average, and deer and elk are stressed.”

Sheehan’s order says that the statewide prohibition on antler gathering “will eliminate a major source of human-caused disturbance to deer and elk during the periods they are most exposed and vulnerable.”

While supportive of the measures, some Nevada sportsmen are worried that Utah antler hunters will shift their gathering efforts to Nevada, and by doing so will negatively impact deer and elk herds in the state.

“We have serious concerns over this,” Cory Lytle, chairman of the Lincoln County Advisory Board to Manage Wildlife, wrote in an email. “The floodgates will open on our eastern border. We’ve seen a steady increase year after year here in Lincoln. The majority of folks come from southern Utah. It won’t just be Lincoln County that’s affected. White Pine and Elko County will see a tremendous increase in (nonresident) shed hunting activity.”

While shed hunting long has been a family tradition for some, the chance to bring home one of nature’s treasures has become big business. Lytle said commercial buyers will pay as much as $14 per pound for brown antlers — those that haven’t been bleached white by the sun.

Where once you might have seen a family or small group of friends poking around in the woods, now you will see what Lytle described as “groups of people, both on foot and ATV. There are many folks now who have trained dogs that go out and find antlers. Can you imagine how much impact that has on a group of deer in certain areas?”

In some instances, there have been reports of irresponsible shed hunters who drive deer and elk through the trees in hopes of knocking their antlers off. This and other similar efforts reflect negatively on all outdoor enthusiasts.

Like Sheehan, Lytle is concerned with the impact of shed hunting activity and certain techniques on animals that already are stressed by lack of forage, months of cold temperatures and poor body condition common to animals in late winter. And with the closure in Utah, he expects to see even more shed hunters than usual.

“What many don’t realize, or maybe they don’t care, is the fact that moving and disturbing these deer have compounding impacts beyond just that of making them burn excess energy. Does may be stressed to the point that they abort their fawns. Certain bucks may have prolonged negative effects of winter, and the size of their new antlers may be affected, and on and on,” wrote Lytle, a supporter of regulations governing shed antler gathering.

“I am an avid shed hunter as well. I’ve hunted sheds since I was a kid. Nobody did it then. My kids love doing it. I also want our resources protected. They need some help.”

Meanwhile, Sheehan encourages outdoor enthusiasts who come across wildlife this winter to keep their distance.

“Do not approach, pick up, chase or handle wildlife,” he said. “Even if you’re trying to help, it’s not good for the animals, and it’s potentially dangerous for you.”

Freelance writer Doug Nielsen is a conservation educator for the Nevada Department of Wildlife. His “In the Outdoors” column, published Thursday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, is not affiliated with or endorsed by the NDOW. Any opinions he states in his column are his own. He can be reached at intheoutdoorslv@gmail.com.

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